South Sudan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

South Sudan

South Sudan

Freedom in the World 2014

2014 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

South Sudan’s civil liberties rating declined from 5 to 6 due to increased armed conflict and mass killings along ethnic lines, triggered by intolerance for dissent within the ruling party and politically motivated arrests in December.


Less than three years after achieving independence, South Sudan was in danger of unraveling at the end of 2013 following an outbreak of political violence that quickly assumed ethnic dimensions. The year was characterized by runaway corruption, political discord, stalled progress on constitutional reform, and widespread abuses by the country’s security forces. It was capped in December by factional fighting within the army that turned into a full-scale rebellion against the government of President Salva Kiir. According to the United Nations, more than 1,000 people were killed and approximately 180,000 displaced in just two weeks of fighting as the year drew to a close. The violence showed no sign of subsiding by December 31, despite calls for a cease-fire. Fighting affected half of South Sudan’s 10 states and government forces had lost control of two state capitals, including the strategically important town of Bentiu, the center of oil production in the country. 

The backdrop to the violence was a political split within the ruling party, the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM), aggravated by long-standing rivalry between President Salva Kiir and his deputy, Riek Machar. Kiir fired Machar as vice president in July, along with his entire cabinet. Kiir justified the move as a good-governance measure, appointing a new, slimmed-down cabinet a week later. Machar announced his intention to oppose the president in the next elections, scheduled for 2015. However, when an armed confrontation broke out within the presidential guard on December 15 between members of the Dinka and Nuer, South Sudan’s two largest ethnic groups, the president accused Machar of trying to launch a coup. Machar denied the allegations, but as the fighting spread and degenerated into communal violence, he placed himself at the head of the revolt and declared that his rival was an illegitimate president whose “dictatorial tendencies” made him unfit for office. Kiir ordered the arrest of Machar and several other senior SPLM leaders. While Machar evaded capture, 12 of his allies were detained. They included nine former government ministers, a former state governor, the suspended secretary general of the party, and the former head of mission to the United States.

Meanwhile, relations with Sudan continued to be volatile throughout 2013. Summits between Kiir and his Sudanese counterpart, President Omar al-Bashir, in April, September, and October, saw both leaders vowing to cooperate on trade and resolve other disputes. South Sudan was cast an economic lifeline in April when an agreement between the countries allowed oil exports to resume through Sudan’s oil pipeline.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Political Rights: 8 / 40 (-3) [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 4 / 12

Kiir was elected president of the semiautonomous region of Southern Sudan with an overwhelming majority in 2010, five years after taking over as head of the region’s dominant party, the SPLM, following the death of longtime leader John Garang. Upon the country’s independence in July 2011, Kiir became president of the new nation of South Sudan. A revised version of Southern Sudan’s 2005 interim constitution, adopted at independence, gives sweeping powers to the executive. The president cannot be impeached and has the authority to fire state governors and dissolve the parliament and state assemblies. Kiir made use of his wide powers in 2013, dismissing his entire cabinet and the vice president. He also fired two state governors, appointing interim governors in their place and missing constitutional deadlines to elect permanent replacements. 

A permanent constitution is due to be passed by 2015. A 55-member National Constitutional Review Commission, established in 2012, was charged with writing a draft text by early 2013, but its work has been hamstrung by administrative delays and lack of an operational budget; the draft had yet to be produced by the end of the year. Some opposition politicians boycotted the constitutional consultation process, claiming it was insufficiently inclusive and dominated by members of the SPLM.

South Sudan’s bicameral National Legislature was reconfigured after independence. The SPLM holds 90 percent of the 332 seats in the lower house, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA). In addition to members of the old, pre-independence Southern legislature—who were elected in 2010—the chamber includes 96 former members of Sudan’s National Assembly and 66 additional members appointed by the president. The upper chamber, the Council of States, includes 20 former members of Sudan’s Council of States, plus 30 members appointed by Kiir. The SPLM dominates the new 21-member cabinet appointed in September. South Sudan has a decentralized system, with significant powers devolved to the 10 state assemblies. Nine of the 10 state governors are members of the SPLM.

The government has begun preparations for the country’s first national elections, scheduled for 2015. In 2012, it passed an elections act and established a National Elections Commission. But the head of the commission said in September 2013 that the government had failed to provide adequate funding for the process and warned that the electoral timetable might slip as a result; the head of the National Bureau of Statistics the previous day said there was not enough money to conduct a census, which was constitutionally required in advance of the elections.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 2 / 16 (-3)

Opposition parties have no chance of winning real political power; five opposition parties are represented in the NLA, but they lack both the resources to operate effectively and the experience to formulate policy and set party platforms The SPLM is intolerant of opposition. It has repeatedly accused the largest opposition party, the SPLM–Democratic Change (DC), of supporting armed groups and threatened to rescind its party registration. However, in an apparent change of heart, a presidential “pardon” was issued to the leader of the SPLM-DC, Lam Akol, in October, although he had never been charged with an offense.

The SPLM is also deeply intolerant of internal dissent. The December 2013 crisis was preceded by Kiir’s decision to marginalize a significant portion of South Sudan’s political leadership, his refusal to convene a meeting of the SPLM’s executive body to discuss complaints about his governing style, and his failure to promote internal party democracy. Kiir has been accused of allowing his decisions to be led by a group of close advisers, described by his opponents as “regional and ethnic lobbies and close business associates.” Accusations persist that members of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Dinka, dominate the SPLM’s leadership and the security services to the detriment of other groups, such as the Nuer.

South Sudan’s military, the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA), continues to exercise strong influence over political affairs.


C. Functioning of Government: 2 / 12

Endemic corruption is undermining public confidence in the state. In an open letter to mark two years of independence in July, a group of U.S. activists and academics known for their strong support of South Sudan lamented that the country had become “synonymous with corruption.” Government appointments are typically handed to SPLM loyalists or potential rivals with little regard for merit, and corrupt officials take advantage of inadequate budget monitoring to divert public funds. So-called ghost workers are used to artificially inflate the public payroll, allowing corrupt officials to steal the surplus. In August, the interior minister said an ongoing investigation had so far been unable to confirm the identities of half the members of South Sudan’s police force, supposed to total 52,000. In September, Kiir accused the SPLA of rampant corruption, asking why it lacked the most basic equipment despite its significant budget.

In June, two senior cabinet ministers were suspended pending an investigation into the theft of $8 million of public money. In September, the head of South Sudan’s Anti-Corruption Commission said the funds had been recovered and recommended that the two men face charges. However, there were no signs of progress in a separate investigation into 75 current and former officials accused of stealing a total of $4 billion. Kiir made the allegations in June 2012, demanding the immediate return of the money. But he refused to name the suspects and no one has yet been prosecuted.


Civil Liberties: 16 / 60 (-4)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 7 / 16 (-1)

Private media in South Sudan has proliferated, with more than three dozen FM radio stations, more than half a dozen newspapers, and several online news sites. The sole national television channel is government-owned. There is one private satellite television channel, Ebony TV. In the summer of 2013, parliament passed bills governing public broadcasting in South Sudan, setting up a media oversight authority, and guaranteeing the public right of access to information. All three bills were awaiting presidential approval at the end of the year. The media authority bill has been criticized by some for establishing statutory regulation of the press, empowering the president to appoint members to the regulator’s board and remove board members through a majority vote by parliament. Oliver Modi Philip, chair of the Union of Journalists of Southern Sudan, welcomed the legislation but warned that it would only confer all of its benefits if fully implemented.

Meanwhile, journalists going about their work encountered increasing hostility from public officials and security forces. Members of the National Security Service (NSS) harassed and unlawfully detained members of the media for critical coverage of the government.  Journalists were warned not to report on a press conference held by Machar in December in which he called for political reform and criticized the president. After violence broke out on December 15, the authorities detained a Reuters correspondent and a freelance photojournalist for two nights without charge for their reporting on a media briefing by Kiir. In other incidents during the year, seven journalists were held in January when they tried to cover violent demonstrations in the city of Wau. Security officials harassed and sometimes unlawfully detained members of the media for critical coverage of the government. In May, top editors from the Juba Monitor newspaper were arrested in connection with a story that accused a senior government official of involvement in a murder, and one of them was detained for three days, reportedly without access to a lawyer. In July, a Catholic radio station had its license suspended after it reported on the suspicious death of a prisoner. In early January, the government claimed to have made arrests in connection with the murder of an online journalist and critic of the government, Diing Chan Awuol, who was shot dead on his doorstep in 2012. However, it released no further details and there were no outward signs that the investigation was making progress. In May, the United States expressed alarm about worsening press freedom conditions in South Sudan.

Religious freedom is guaranteed by the interim constitution and generally respected in practice. The church is the strongest nongovernmental organization (NGO) in South Sudan and plays an important role in mediating state-society relations. There are no restrictions on academic freedom, although basic access to education is limited outside state capitals. The university system was seriously disrupted in 2012 by austerity measures and ethnic violence, which forced the closure of the country’s main institution of higher learning, Juba University, for three months. The December 2013 violence also disrupted the education system.

Public discussion of political issues is muted for fear of harassment from the authorities. The government uses the NSS to track and intimidate perceived critics.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 3 / 12 (-1)

Freedoms of assembly and association are enshrined in the interim charter, and authorities typically uphold them in practice. South Sudan is highly dependent on assistance from foreign NGOs, which largely operate freely in the country. However, the government has hindered the approval of visas for some nationalities and obstructed the work of international organizations it considers unhelpful. A UN human rights official was expelled in 2012 in response to a report accusing the SPLA of committing abuses in Jonglei state. The country’s widespread instability has also interfered with the work of international organizations. Members and staff of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) have come under attack from armed groups. In the most serious incident, in April, 12 people traveling in a UNMISS convoy were killed by unidentified attackers in Jonglei. When violence broke out in Jonglei in December, armed youth attacked a UN compound in Akobo, killing two UN peacekeepers and approximately 20 Dinka civilians who had been seeking shelter.

Domestic civil society organizations, including unions, remain nascent. A Workers’ Trade Union Federation, formed in 2010, has 65,000 members. Legislation to codify labor rights has stalled in the National Assembly.


F. Rule of Law: 1 / 16 (-2)

The interim constitution provides for an independent judiciary. The president’s Supreme Court appointments must be confirmed by a two-thirds majority in the NLA. The court system is under huge strain. In 2011, the chief justice said that the courts had the capacity to handle 100,000 cases a year, but faced four times that number. There are allegations that the courts have been used by the government to harass opponents of Kiir. The president was accused of using the alleged December 15 coup as a pretext to detain prominent political rivals. Twelve senior SPLM current and former officials were arrested on suspicion of involvement in an attempted coup. Only one had been released by the end of the year, despite protests by the international community. 

There is a culture of impunity within the security forces, with serious abuses carried out against civilians, reportedly with the full knowledge or on the orders of some senior commanders. The South Sudan National Police Service (SSNPS) is ill-equipped, unprofessional, and overwhelmed by the country’s security challenges. There were numerous reports of arbitrary arrest, police brutality, and bribe-taking. Factions of the SSNPS were believed to be responsible for a spate of violent crime and robberies in Juba in 2012. In 2011, UN inspectors uncovered evidence of brutality and rape at the main police training academy; at least two recruits died of their injuries, and no one has been prosecuted. The National Security Service (NSS), an unregulated agency reporting directly to the president, has been responsible for arbitrary arrests and abuses.

While there have been modest improvements to the penal system, prison facilities are poor, with unsanitary conditions and insufficient food for inmates. Children and the mentally ill are routinely detained with adult prisoners. According to Human Rights Watch, one-third of detainees are on remand. Inefficiencies in the justice system have led to indefinite detention.

The army routinely performs policing functions, and the SPLA has committed serious human rights violations while carrying out such duties and in its other capacities. These include the murder, rape, and torture of civilians and the looting and destruction of property during the ongoing counter-insurgency campaign in Jonglei. Much of the violence has targeted the Murle ethnic group; Human Rights Watch documented almost 100 unlawful killings of Murle civilians and security officials by the security forces between December 2012 and July 2013 in one county alone. Little has been done to investigate abuses by the army, although in a positive step, the army announced in August that it had arrested a brigadier general whose soldiers were accused of serious violence against civilians.

While members of some armed insurgent groups—including the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA)—reached a deal with the government and handed over their weapons in April, other groups, particularly one led by David Yau Yau, continued to wreak havoc in Jonglei. In an attack widely attributed to Yau Yau’s rebels, more than 70 people were killed in October when gunmen attacked villages, burned property, and stole cattle. Yau Yau denied that his rebels had been involved in the attack. In their response to the insurgency in Jonglei, South Sudanese security forces were accused of attacking civilians and destroying property on a large scale, and raping women with impunity.

The state authorities are unable to protect vulnerable populations from violence and are themselves responsible for some of the most serious abuses. The United Nations logged 269 separate incidents of armed violence across the country from January–September 2013. The worst-affected area remained Jonglei state, where ethnic clashes had caused almost two thousand deaths since independence and the displacement of more than 100,000 people, even before the violence of December 2013.

Foreign workers in South Sudan have complained of harassment and discrimination. In August, foreign motorcycle-taxi operators were banned from working in the country, a decision that forced an estimated 1,000 Ugandans to leave South Sudan. 

Since 2005, more than two million refugees and internally displaced people have moved back to the South. The government encouraged their return but has largely failed to provide them with even the most basic assistance.

Same-sex sexual conduct is not explicitly illegal in South Sudan, but “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) individuals face widespread discrimination and stigma.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 5 / 16

Land use and ownership are frequent causes of conflict in South Sudan, and returning refugees have exacerbated the problem. Unclear or nonexistent laws have been exploited by SPLM officials and overseas investors to uproot people from their land.

The interim constitution guarantees the rights of women to equal pay and property ownership. Nonetheless, women are routinely exposed to discriminatory practices and domestic abuse. Women hold a quarter of the posts in the NLA, fulfilling a constitutional gender quota. The prevalence of child marriage contributes to low levels of educational attainment among girls. Official figures suggest that almost half of girls aged 15–19 are married and, according to a March 2013 Human Rights Watch report, the government is failing to adequately address the problem. The SPLA continues to use child soldiers, despite a pledge to end the practice.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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